Comedy, Art or Something in Between: At Least Bo Burnham Made Us Some Content

“Inside” is Burnham’s attempt to balance his motivations as a performer and his mental health issues against the world’s inability to provide a live audience — and whether comedy is even appropriate in these times.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

He got started alone in his room. Don’t let that fact slip away.

Bo Burnham first shot to fame at 16 by uploading videos to a nascent website called YouTube, in which he performed vulgar but lyrically impressive comedic songs. Fourteen years later, after a career of tours and hour-long specials, it’s as though his career arc has curved all the way back to form a full circle. In “Inside,” he’s back to performing alone in a room, filming himself for a virtual audience he can no longer see in person.

“Is there anyone out there? Or am I all alone?” Burnham asks in one of the show’s sadder, more overlooked songs. “It wouldn’t make a difference — still, I don’t wanna know.”

One of the common takeaways I’ve seen is that “Inside,” while powerful and worthwhile, is not so much a comedy special as it is an art piece. Well, Netflix has categorized and described it as a comedy. But look back on Burnham’s own brief messages since April, when he broke a long social media hiatus to announce that “Inside” was coming.

Burnham never called it a comedy special. Just a “special.” That was his only promise.

It’s a film. It’s a musical variety hour. It’s a one-man show taken to the extremes: Burnham is not only writer and performer, but also director and crew. And it picks up where things left off five years ago, as the artist continues to self-analyze his role in the world in a way that would come off as indulgent if it weren’t so damn relatable on personal and universal levels.

At the end of Burnham’s last special, 2016’s “Make Happy,” Burnham pulled off an incredible double ending that I broke down here. In a finale number called “Can’t Handle This,” Burnham worked up the nerve to tell his live audience, “My biggest problem’s you.” Then, in a coda filmed only for the Netflix release, he removed himself from the concert hall and sang “Are You Happy?,” further examining the conflict between his desire to entertain and his own unhappiness with his panic attack-stricken performing career.

This is necessary context for multiple reasons. First, judging by the trailer for “Inside” and the white side door seen in so many scenes of the special, Burnham isolated himself in the same room that he shot “Are You Happy?” But even more fascinating, now Burnham’s return to comedy is marked by the distinct lack of a live audience — and he must grapple with whether the audience was actually his biggest problem, or if there’s something more existential at the heart of his struggles. (Spoiler: There is.)

It’s amazing because Burnham couldn’t have seen any of this coming five years ago. Not that a pandemic would upend daily life as we know it, nor that his house — that particular room in his house — would come to represent something more like a trap than an escape.

Burnham fans will recognize old themes of his content that return with new urgency amid the pandemic, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other crises of 2020 American life. The first and probably best example of this is one of “Inside’s” introductory songs, “Comedy,” an early Act I sort of table-setter that Burnham had to write to reintroduce himself and get the ball rolling.

For comparison: In a 2013 number called “Sad,” he drizzles on thick coatings of irony when claiming laughter is the key to solving the world’s ills — “Being a comedian isn’t being an insensitive prick capitalizing on the most animalistic impulses of the public, it’s being a hero!” Jump ahead to 2021, and we’re watching Burnham pull the same trick in this song: “The world is so fucked up … and there’s only one thing that I can do about it, while being paid and being the center of attention.” It’s a good gag on one level and speaks to the very heart of Burnham’s concerns at another.

The next 30 minutes of “Inside” are a burst of sketches, songs and smash cuts. In an alternate universe, bits like the songs “FaceTime with My Mom” and “White Woman’s Instagram” plus the commercial for a “social brand consultant” may as well have been conjured up for the pandemic-era “SNL from Home” episodes.

And yet one man produced them all. No other comedian working today likely could replicate “Inside” as a technical feat, to say nothing of its content. Burnham includes several interstitial scenes where we watch him test lights or edit videos, showing us a massive solo undertaking. Another reviewer could spend 1,000 words just analyzing Burnham’s lighting direction, and still another could dive into how the room itself can be considered a character in the film, if they wanted to get overambitious about it.

Something that caught my ear during 2016’s “Make Happy” was the number of times Burnham would undercut his own jokes. He hadn’t made that a habit before. Then, all at once — either as a defense mechanism induced by his anxiety on stage, or just to reach for a secondary laugh — he’d throw in tags like, “He said, sarcastically setting up a second verse in a comedy song,” or, “I don’t like explaining jokes, but the joke where I tell everyone to kill themselves might deserve an explanation.” Fair, but the irony was defanged.

I bring this up because in “Inside,” Burnham leaves so much more up for our interpretation. He allows things to go in a more abstract, at times absurdist direction. Yet this also creates unexpected tender moments: The subject of “White Woman’s Instagram” is portrayed as overly basic, but she becomes humanized and sympathetic when Burnham’s bridge adds the image of her dedicating a post to her deceased mom and dad.

The song “Look Who’s Inside Again” is where Burnham pivots to full-on introspection. Fans will know it better by its presumed title, “Stuck in a Room,” but Burnham’s actual name for it was revealed when the special’s songs were released online June 10. And the lyric he chose to serve as the title should tell us a lot.

“Well, well, look who’s inside again,” he sings about the cosmic irony of his predicament. “Went out to look for a reason to hide again.”

There are several laughs still ahead, to be sure, but they’re mostly couched within the context of Burnham’s ever-growing self-awareness. He attempts to spill out his guilt for old transgressions in “Problematic,” but leaves something to be desired by only admitting to “vaguely shitty” skeletons like having worn an Aladdin Halloween costume (sans brownface). He turns 30 during his isolation and angrily commemorates the milestone with a theatrical, vulnerable song.

“Welcome to the Internet” appears to be his fans’ favorite, judging by social media reaction, and “That Funny Feeling” has already launched a thousand YouTube covers. These vastly different songs cover similar territory late in the special. The former is practically a Disney villain song for the modern-day online landscape that Gen Z kids grew up with; the latter is acoustic folk with surreal observations on the distressing state of the world.

I won’t spoil the show’s ending, but “All Eyes On Me” requires discussion for its important parallels to “Can’t Handle This” from 2016. Both are R&B-esque songs whose titles contain double meanings, during which Burnham both indirectly and directly addresses his followers with the blunt truth. This time, Burnham explains in no uncertain terms what we’d previously only gleaned from his past interviews: He stopped performing after “Make Happy” due to his mental health, he felt better enough to start mounting a return in early 2020 and those plans got upended.

Unlike in 2016, he doesn’t have the benefit of a literal stage or living, breathing fans staring up at him. That’s why this next part is the most symbolic, significant, frankly jarring moment of the whole 87 minutes.

He stops singing the generic “get your fuckin’ hands up” chorus and glares into his camera, itself a symbol that appears at various points of the special. He stops singing to an imagined crowd, and instead he addresses every last one of us watching from home.

“Get up. Get up. I’m talking to you. Get the fuck up!”

With that, he snatches up the camera and finishes the song while taking us on a haywire dance around the room. His room, and his reality.

I’m publishing this on my 27th birthday. A friend of mine turns 30 this month; she asked me what I thought of this special, because she hadn’t seen it yet, and I so badly wanted to spoil just the song “30” for her.

But what did I think of the special? I don’t know. Let me take you behind the curtain, Burnham-style: I currently have “Wrap this shit up by talking about myself” written in red font on my word document as a placeholder. I’m figuring this out in real time, kind of like Burnham did.

Everyone’s going to relate to it differently based on where they are in life, the way teenage girls related to Burnham’s film “Eighth Grade,” the way edgy teen boys glommed onto his earliest YouTube songs. I think the reason I’m wrapping this review up and posting it on my birthday is because I can appreciate the evolution of his work, and his self, over a long period of time. He’s 30 now. Today I’m officially in my late 20s, and man, that doesn’t feel great to say.

And I’ve lived through my own mental health struggles in recent years. There’s no doubt I’m attracted to that facet of Burnham’s work. He may joke that healing the world with comedy is ludicrous, but any entertainer who discusses mental health in such a raw, unvarnished way is doing his fans a great service.

I’m reminded of Burnham’s hair. It’s hard not to watch his hair and beard grow steadily throughout the run time. It gives the viewer the impression that he’s coming up with the show in straight chronological order, finishing one scene before he starts work on the next one (with very rare flashes back or forward for added effect).

But also, the longer and messier it got, the more depressed and unwell Burnham seemed to become. Whether he was exaggerating it as part of the performance is kind of beside the point. He showed us himself at his worst, something raw, something many of us can relate to.

Piss-poor endings like these are why I’m not a full-time entertainment critic, and that’s OK. The fact is, there’s always so much to digest in a Burnham special that reviewers everywhere from the New York Times to the A.V. Club never get the full picture. Maybe I can strive to go a bit easier on myself, and now that he’s made us some content, maybe Bo can too.

Sports journalist with too many interests to name. www.adamzielonka.com